SNP courts controversy by continuing to place advisers on Holyrood committees

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By Patience Magill

The Scottish National Party’s controversial decision to place party-appointed assistants on Holyrood committees has continued to attract criticism as well as attacks by the opposition.

The committee system at Holyrood was designed supposedly to facilitate independent scrutiny of the powers that be, but at Holyrood in recent years that has not been the case.

imagesThe SNP government appeared determined to control the committees – and therefore dissent – during the 2007-2011 and 2011-2016 administrations. But there were signs that this might change, following trenchant criticism from all sides including within the SNP, when the new Parliament arrived this summer.

However, at the weekend it emerged that several SNP MSPs, already given roles assisting SNP Ministers as “Parliamentary Liaison Officers” (PLOs), are being placed on various committees covering areas for which the same ministers have responsibility, in a move seen by many as an attempt to influence and even control committee activity.

Education Secretary John Swinney’s PLO, Jenny Gilruth MSP, is to sit on the education committee, Finance Secretary Derek McKay’s PLO Kate Forbes MSP, is on finance committee, and the pattern has been repeated across the various portfolios and matching committees.

Today, both the Scottish Greens and Labour criticised the move. Greens’ co-convener Patrick Harvie commented: “It’s amazing how the savage abuse of power suddenly becomes quite benign when the government changes.” His comment highlighted critical remarks by Culture & External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop MSP – that an MSP “cannot be servant to two masters” – made when she was in opposition and highly critical of the practice which the SNP have nevertheless continued.

Patrick Harvie MSP: Critical
Patrick Harvie MSP: Critical

Ms Hyslop’s PLO, Ashten Regan-Denham MSP, has been added to the Europe committee, which regularly calls the Minister to give evidence.

Now Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asking that he re-consider the practice, while acknowledging that it was introduced initially by her party.

Her letter says: “Dear Nicola,

“Many times you have spoken about the “new politics” that you believe the SNP and your Scottish Government are bringing to Scotland. However, your Government’s behaviour in proposing the appointment of Parliamentary Liaison Officers (PLOs) to Holyrood Committees in their own portfolio areas flies in the face of this promise.

“I accept that this was something that the last Labour/Lib Dem coalition Government in Holyrood did when we were in power. We were wrong then, as you are wrong now. With significant new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament, we cannot have MSPs who hold a position in the Scottish Government and who receive confidential Scottish Government information scrutinising the Government in their own portfolio areas.

“For Scottish Labour’s part, any future Labour Scottish Government would reintroduce the ban on PLOs being members of Parliamentary Committees in their own portfolio areas that formed part of the Ministerial Code prior to 2007. This provision was removed under your predecessor, Alex Salmond. I have attached proposed language for inclusion in the Code.

“I am urging you to reconsider the appointment of PLOs in the interests of ensuring proper scrutiny of your Government, and to reintroduce the ban in the Ministerial code. Failing to do so will make Scottish Parliament committees less independent than those in the UK Parliament and will confirm that the SNP are now beginning to make the same mistakes in power that we once did.”

Labour amendment to the Ministerial Code would add:

“Parliamentary Liaison Officers should be afforded as great a liberty of action as possible; but their close and confidential association with Ministers imposes certain obligations on them. PLOs may serve on Parliamentary Committees, but they should not serve on Committees with a substantial direct link to their Minister’s portfolio. Similarly, while they may table Parliamentary Questions, they should not table oral Parliamentary Questions on issues for which their Minister is responsible.”